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Diggin' It

Garden design using native plants

Designing gardens with native plants brings great benefits.

By Genevieve Schmidt / May 2, 2011

Attractive native plants such as this Douglas iris, native to California, provide garden designers with extra options beyond the standard plants.

Courtesy of Genevieve Schmidt

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I've been reading "The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Landscaping," edited by Thomas Christopher (Timber Press, $34.95), and one of the points that has stuck with me is in Douglas Tallamy's section on welcoming wildlife into the garden through planting native plants.

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Tallamy, of course, is a passionate advocate of using native plants in the landscape, and is the author of "Bringing Nature Home."

Why native plants are sometimes rejected

In a discussion in the book about why gardeners are resistant to planting native, Tallamy's wife points out:

"Horticulturists are artists, and their medium is the garden. Their goal is to paint the landscape with beautiful plants, and they have a larger palette to work with if they use plants from all over the globe."

Yes! This is completely true, and it's particularly hard when we've grown to love so very many non-native plants. Exhortations to plant more natives tend to fall on deaf ears, because firstly, we don't always know a lot about native plants and how to use them successfully.

I don't know about you, but the more I learn about a plant, the more I tend to fall in love with it, because I figure out how to show it off to its best advantage.

Another reason gardeners are resistant to planting natives is that we think of using native plants as an all-or-nothing deal. We've developed the false idea that we can either have a boring landscape of natives that looks more like a restoration project than a garden, or have a gorgeous, artful one which uses non-native plants.

The restoration approach can lead to a garden that seems to reject human artistry and contribution. But the other approach is missing a broad spectrum of life, beauty, and regional connection that isn't always obvious at first glance.

Using natives as a design element improves our gardens in so many ways, and gardeners who use natives are tapping into another lens through which to view a garden. We're used to considering color, movement, and texture in the garden. In the same way, using native plants can add a number of important elements to improve your design.

Here's how to think about using natives in your garden in a way that adds to it, rather than taking away:

Natives tap into regional flair

Have you ever visited a new town, and found to your dismay that it had the same chain stores, the same dull landscaping, and the same feel as any number of other places in America? We feel the greatest connection to places that are uniquely their own, and trees and landscaping have as much ability to create a sense of place as do the architecture and businesses in an area.

Why then, do so many of us gravitate towards a gardening style that could occur anywhere? Roses, dahlias, and daisies are lovely plants in a garden, but they do little to convey what is special about your home and your surroundings.

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